Post-Pub Updates: West Side Gangs Fight It Out in the ’30s

West Side Highway and Piers 95-98, looking west from the roof of 619 West 54th Street, Manhattan; By Berenice Abbott, from The New York Public Library Library Digital Collection (public domain)

Joseph “Big Joe” Butler.  Charlie “The Jew” Yanowsky.

Forgotten now, those two men (along with Big Joe’s partner Robert “Farmer” Sullivan) headed the two most powerful factions of the gang that ran the rackets on Manhattan’s West Side docks and the blocks along them in the 1930s.

Neil G. Clark’s book “Dock Boss: Eddie McGrath and the West Side Waterfront” (Barricade Books, 2017) paints a detailed and gritty picture of their world. Neil got in touch when he saw the publication of MWSOL and kindly passed on some material, including the picture of Rubel heist figure Bernard McMahon that figures in a previous post here.

I bought Neil’s book (author solidarity!) and have gone through it now, and it provides some great back story about the milieu that the Rubel robbery gang swirled in. As he points out, the West Side, from Greenwich Village up through the 100s, was at the time largely a series of insular Irish immigrant enclaves, neighborhoods where unskilled men could find work on the docks. The solidly Irish makeup of the area kept the Italian Mafia at bay, and left it open for the loose knit group of mainly Irish criminals who controlled extortion, gambling and loansharking rackets and cargo heists. The crews were not hierarchical like the Mafia families, leading to more instability and hence more violence.

Neil establishes that the West Side members of the Rubel gang, including McMahon, John Manning, Joe Kress and the robbery expert Archie Stewart, were all members or associates of the Yanowsky faction. Madeline Tully, who ran the rooming house at 334 Riverside Drive where McMahon was brought with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his leg and where he died, was a known quantity to the group, and had taken in Yanowsky’s people previously. Neil also contends that the machine guns produced by Manning and McMahon for the Rubel robbery came courtesy of Yanowsky himself. Kress, the Rubel crew’s car thief, had other Yanowsky credentials, having taken part with him in the hit of a Butler-affiliated gangster.

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan By Berenice Abbott, from The New York Public Library Library Digital Collection (public domain)

That murder was part of a war that developed between the Yanowsky and Butler factions — a conflict that left dozens of men killed. In the end, the Butler people, by then led by Eddie McGrath and John Dunn, achieved dominance, wiping out most of the Yanowsky gang or benefiting from the jailing of the rest. One of the last to die was John Manning. As my book describes, Manning was mysteriously gunned down several years after the Rubel robbery on an East Harlem street, probably the result of a gang war or opposition to his effort to take over a pier on the West Side. Neil posits that he fell victim to the McGrath/Dunn campaign to wipe out Yanowsky’s crew.

I’m also grateful for Neil’s meticulous research, which clarifies the fate of John Hughes, who provided one of the escape boats that roared away from Bath Beach across Gravesend Bay with the Rubel gang and their cash after the robbery. Hughes was widely reported to have disappeared shortly after the crime, his fate never determined. However, a John Hughes linked to the Rubel case by investigators was arrested in New Jersey around that time, leading to some confusion about whether Hughes had really disappeared. Neil makes it clear that that John Hughes was a different man. His nickname was “Peck.”

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